FARM animals little and large paid a visit to the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham to mark University Mental Health Day on March 3 – and after a tough couple of years for students, the Herald caught up with UCA deputy vice chancellor, Professor Catherine Harper, to find out what support is available on and off campus.

Hi Catherine. I know uni campuses can get a little wild at times, but this is something else! Why is there a farm on campus today?

CH: Like every university, we were challenged during the pandemic. But our students were particularly challenged around their mental health, suffering a sense of isolation, of not even being able to touch or to be near to people, and that’s had a real impact on people’s mental health. So when this idea came up, we jumped at it.

There’s something about welcoming a group of farm animals to the university that’s a bit novel, it’s a bit different.

Over the pandemic, most students were working from home – is everyone back on campus now?

CH: Yes. We had periods where we had campus closures, and that was government-directed, we had to comply. And then there were periods where we had blended learning, so any work that we could put online, we did.

But we were particularly keen to get students onto campus again. The type of disciplines that we cover are very much hands-on, studio-based. Whether they’re ceramics or digital games design, students need to be in the workshops and in the studios.

So when we were able to do that, we made that happen as quickly as possible – with safety measures, of course. The university has invested significantly in keeping everyone safe.

We have had various rules and a huge cleaning regime to keep the place as sterile as possible.

But that kind of sterility almost infected the culture. And now, we are really keen to get the student body back.

A university is such a vibrant community, it was sad to see the place so empty for all that time...

CH: It was. And even when we did have students working on campus during the pandemic, when we were allowed to do so, even just things like social distancing meant that people withdrew from each other, created their own invisible bubble around each other.

But now, safely, securely, we’re coming back to that. We still encourage the use of masks in our buildings, and certainly in our workshop areas. But we’re gradually getting back to being humans.

Was it harder identifying students’ mental health issues when they were at home? Were you still able to give them support?

CH: We were very proactive about this. We received some additional funding, and were able to put in place a greater number of counsellors. I ran a Friday forum every week, where students could come along on Zoom, and talk about what was not working for them.

It was nice when they talked about what was working – but a lot of the time, they needed to vent their frustration, their anxiety, their worries. And two things happened.

We were able to identify where we needed to put in extra solutions, which was really beneficial to us.

But we also got to the point where students were bringing us ideas that we hadn’t even thought about. So for example, we had a ‘click and collect’ scheme, whereby people could take sterilised equipment home with them. And that came from a student, who said ‘you can click and collect at the supermarket, so could we do something similar here?’ The UCA is a place where great ideas are welcomed, and that was a great idea so we implemented it.

But today is very much about getting back to normal – if you can call having a small farm on our campus normal!

So what pastoral support does the university offer on a day-to-day basis?

CH: We have a Gateway Team which serve a kind of triage function on each of our campuses.

We provide academic support – so for students who may be struggling with, for example, English language, or academic study, we provide support into that space. And those people who have anxiety within their courses, clearly that’s picked up by personal tutors within the courses, but there are also services that students can access or be referred to, within the university.

Those services run from counselling that can happen in-house right through to occasionally we have students who have deep trauma, deep psychological issues, and they need professional help. So we have a very strong line through to the NHS and that kind of service.

Ultimately, we’re here because of our students, so why wouldn’t we look after them really well? They’re the reason for the university. And I believe it’s our moral obligation to look after them.

Have you spotted any mental health trends coming out of the pandemic?

CH: I think, nationally, our mental health challenges are going to persist for some time past the pandemic, and of course we’re not out of the woods yet with Covid.

It’s a frightening time to be alive, and many of our students are young people, and many of our young people are looking out across the world and thinking, ‘well, we’ve had the pandemic, we have conflict in the world, I’m not sure about my future, the climate is a worry to me’. It’s a very worrying time for everyone.

But for creative students who are often highly sensitive, highly sensitised to thinking about the big issues, it can be really challenging.

So I think that’ll continue for some time. But one of the things that we work hard on doing in our curriculum delivery, is working on students’ resilience. So the ability to know that it’s scary, but to have the personal tools to cope.

I think if we can build that resilience and confidence, and authenticity in our students – the ability to speak with their own voices and know that they’re okay, then I think we’ve succeeded, as well as all the creative stuff that we do.

Because we want to produce confident, successful, happy citizens who will contribute to building the world post pandemic, and hopefully, post some of the major challenges that we’re all facing right now. This is the future.

Talking about mental health is no longer taboo – and it’s become a bit of a cliché, but it really is okay not to be okay isn’t it...

CH: That’s certainly something that I’m really pleased to see – that we can talk collectively and publicly much more about our mental health challenges.

If you break your leg, you seek help. If you’re not feeling good in your mind, you seek help. One isn’t more privileged than the other or more acceptable than the other.

Collectively, if we know what is causing anxiety we can work to try to improve the situation. While things are under the radar, worries, anxieties, lack of competence – if they’re not visible it’s very hard to do something about them.